Indian-style pizzas heating up Winnipeg's food scene

Indian-style pizza, also referred to as Punjabi pizza or Desi-style pizza, is popping up on menus across Winnipeg, with toppings like tandoori chicken, butter chicken, paneer, and spinach.

Pizza joints say they're finding success with new twist on old classic, adding Indian-inspired flavours

Jagtaran Singh Sidhu, owner of Desi Pizza and Curries, serves unique flavours of Indian-style pizza from his Henderson Highway location. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

Putting pineapple on pizza is a divisive topic for some, but what about cauliflower? Or fresh ginger? Cilantro? 

When it comes to ordering up a pizza, Winnipeg's toppings tastes are changing.

Indian-style pizza, also referred to as Punjabi pizza or Desi-style pizza, is popping up on menus across the city. The pizzas feature toppings like tandoori chicken, butter chicken, paneer and spinach, often topped with fresh ginger and cilantro, or even raisins and cashews.

"When I started it was hard to get the people aware. Pizza is Italian — who eats Indian pizza, right?" said Jagtaran Singh Sidhu, owner of Desi Pizza and Curries.

Walking into Sidhu's storefront on Henderson Highway, the black and white checkered flooring and red and green stripes on the walls are reminiscent of an Italian eatery — but what's offered is anything but your traditional 'za.

Sidhu says Indian-style pizza offers more options for vegetarians, like this spiced paneer pizza from Desi Pizza and Curries. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

When Sidhu opened his Pembina Highway location in 2008, six years after coming to Canada from India, pizza was popular, but there was one big problem: many people from his home country didn't like it.

The tomato-sauce-slathered dough just didn't satisfy the palates of the Indian community, Sidhu said.

"In our culture, 60 per cent of the people are vegetarian, and 90 per cent of the Canadian pizzas are meat pizzas," he said.

"All they have [for vegetarian options] is bell peppers, onions and mushrooms."

Sidhu set out to offer more options, while also satisfying his customers' desire for spice. He started making pizzas with toppings like marinated cauliflower, paneer (a soft cheese) and spinach.

He makes everything from scratch and uses spices imported from India, which are ground in-house.

"We hand-chop that cauliflower, we marinate it, let it sit overnight, and then when the spices get absorbed we roast it before we put it on the pizza. And trust me, it was better than meat," he said.

"I created about eight to 10 vegetarian pizzas, which was a super-hit in our community."

Sidhu says all the spices used in his restaurant are imported whole from India and ground fresh to keep the flavour authentic. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

Sidhu's Indian-inspired pizzas now make up about 90 per cent of his pizza sales. He says he's noticed more and more people outside of the Indian community eating it up.

"Filipinos, Chinese, Ukrainians, European, even people from Australia," he said of his customer base.

Indian pizza orders on the rise

While the concept isn't new, it seems to be enjoying an increase in popularity.

In Winnipeg, Skip The Dishes says it's seen a 109 per cent increase this year in orders of Punjabi-style pizza compared to 2020, and a 60 per cent increase of Desi-style pizza over the same time period.

Across Canada, there's been a 59 per cent increase in orders for Punjabi-style pizza this year, with 38,000 orders for tandoori chicken pizzas and nearly 45,000 orders for paneer pizza so far in 2021, according to a spokesperson for the food delivery service.

Winnipeg City Pizza serves up Indian-style pizza from its Portage Avenue location. Co-owner and head chef Abhishek Dadra says the business has grown faster than expected. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

Sidhu says the growth of the Indian community in Winnipeg, and a rise in the popularity of Indian food in other cultural groups, has boosted the demand for Indian-style pizza.

While Sidhu believes he was the first in Winnipeg to start adding Indian toppings to pizza back in 2008, many others have since followed. 

When Abhishek Dadra moved to Winnipeg from Brampton, Ont., just over a year ago, he also found the pizza options to be lacking.

"We couldn't find a good, nice place to eat pizzas and stuff," said Dadra, who is the executive chef and co-owner of Winnipeg City Pizza.

"The Italian-style pizza, it's kind of dull in taste — the only flavour you can have is the sauce. The toppings don't really have that much taste," he said.

The malai chicken tikka pizza at Winnipeg City Pizza features Indian-inspired flavours with creamy chicken, fresh ginger and cilantro. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

Dadra and his business partner opened their takeout and delivery location on Portage Avenue last October. 

"We tried it out and the sales went booming."

A second location was opened in Ur's Convenience store on Selkirk Avenue in March, and a third is planned for somewhere in the Maples neighbourhood next year. They plan to make the Portage Avenue location 24 hours, and are considering franchising.

"It's like a fusion between Italian style and Indian spices and flavours," said the 23-year-old, who came to Canada at 18 and started working in restaurants.

Dadra said it's not just a matter of throwing Indian flavours on top of a pizza, but re-creating the taste from the crust up. Spices are added directly to the dough, which is a hybrid of Italian and Indian styles.

Dadra says a third location of Winnipeg City Pizza is planned for somewhere in The Maples next year. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

"So when you eat it it feels like you're eating naan [bread] and with the tandoori chicken on top it's really heaven in your mouth," he said.

Dadra still has traditional pizza toppings on the menu, but says the Indian-style pizzas make up about 60 per cent of his pizza sales.

'Pizza has been pandemic-proof': food writer

Michelle Brisebois, a digital marketing consultant for the restaurant industry and a writer for Canadian Pizza Magazine, says it's not surprising Indian flavours are popping up on pizza. 

Indian food in general has taken off in recent years, with many new immigrants opening restaurants to cater to their communities, she said.

"It's kind of a natural evolution that people come here, they introduce their food, they open restaurants, and then the culinary scene starts to look at, 'How do we put a twist on that?'"

Sidhu says the growth of the Indian community in Winnipeg, as well as the rise in popularity of Indian food among other cultures, has led to the increasing popularity of Indian-style pizzas, like this butter chicken-topped 'za. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

Brisebois says from a business perspective, selling pizza is a good bet, because it has a relatively low ingredients cost and higher profit margins.

As well, pizza transports well in a takeout world. When the pandemic hit, while other restaurants had to scramble to adapt, pizza restaurants were already in the delivery model, she said.

"Pizza has been pandemic-proof."

Indian-style pizza heats up Winnipeg's food scene

2 years ago
Duration 2:39
When it comes to ordering up a pizza, Winnipeg's taste for toppings is changing. Pizza joints offering Indian-style or Punjabi pizza are popping up all over town. The CBC's Holly Caruk finds out why Indian-inspired 'za have been pandemic-proof.